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March 25th 2013
Published: April 19th 2013
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Customer Service at the LSF Workshop. Occupational Therapists. Speech Therapists. Physiotherapists. Remedial Masseurs. Fitness and Physical Trainers. Organisational Assistants. Grant Writers. Graphic Designers/Wordpress/Computer Gurus with Microsoft Office knowledge (specifically excel) for assistance with bookkeeping/management. IT Database Consultant. Photographers. Contact us:
Carmen was one of those generous spirited volunteers who you wish would have stayed longer. However she was also one of those fabulous volunteers who came for three months but managed to do six months of work so I am definitely not complaining.

Like many of our self funded volunteers Carmen immersed herself into her volunteering and gave it 110%!,(MISSING) she didn't treat it like a daily job where you clock on and off. At all times approaching her varied roles with the utmost professionalism and just the right amount of sensitivity.

While volunteering for Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An Carmen had a wide range of duties and responsibilities. These included working at the Lifestart Foundation Workshop, greeting customers and guests, giving them information about our project work and promoting the Lifestart Foundation Tour. She helped set up 2 new online stores Bonanza and Dawanda and additional travel sites EHOH Asia and Qype and managed our Social media Facebook page. Carmen also volunteered every week at our two outreach projects working with the severely disabled... and at the same time taught English.

Carmen also applied for grants and funding on behalf of Lifestart Foundation which is a much needed part
Carmen and the girlsCarmen and the girlsCarmen and the girls

Downstairs at the Workshop with Hoa, Lieu, Hanh and Nghe
of our ongoing work. I will update you on the success of her applications in a future blog. Needless to say I am very grateful and also optimistic that her hard work in this area will be successful.

As our support base grows it is evident that we have a growing number of wonderful supporters and volunteers from Europe.

As soon as she arrived back in Germany Carmen has been continuing to help and is keen to stay involved.

Carmen, like many of our other volunteers want to continue their involvement and support of Lifestart Foundation when they return to their home countries. With this in mind I have asked Carmen to be our first European Lifestart Foundation Ambassador.

If you are now back in your home country and you would like to help and stay connected to our work Carmen would love to hear from you. You can send her a message via this blog or send an email to

Carmens blog is not so much about the work that she did but more about the experience of volunteering. Also check out her photos at the very end of the page.

Upstairs at the WorkshopUpstairs at the WorkshopUpstairs at the Workshop

with Luu, Mai and Xuyen


"Here I sit, back home in Berlin/Germany, after three pretty intense months in Hoi An, that very likely changed my life... I just need to close my eyes and I am right there, still! Thinking about my time with Lifestart Foundation and all the people I met, my heart is overflowing and my brain is jumping from one unique episode to another, and back and forth, like crazy.

So, how was it?

Well, I figured one of the hardest parts of coming home is to find the balance of what you can actually share with others and what will remain inside of you only, forever. Sometimes when people ask “how was it”, I even refuse to answer, trying to explain that there is no such thing like a start-button that makes me babble like an entertainer, giving exotic tales from a far away country (a bit stubborn, me thinks, but that’s how I tend to react) – and at other times, I badly want to share my feelings and fill in my friends on what happened to me and around me during those three months, but it seems impossible to convey. I am sure there is a happy medium, but it’s hard to spot.

When Karen asked me to write this blog, I initially said yes, of course, but now, to be honest, I am struggling to find the right words.

Let's see...

It all started when I came back from traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, about a year a go, and it never quite stopped. My trip has left me not only fascinated but also deeply moved and pensive. It was my first time in Asia and I fell in love with the region, the people, the culture, instantly. Experiencing how little people need to lead a happy life, and seeing how little people actually have to make a living after all, made me question quite a few things about my own life. Many a problem suddenly seemed disproportional and sitting at my desk felt more and more like a waste of time.

I’ve had the impulse to return for an extended period of time, to escape from office life and to make a difference, somehow... and instead of giving it all away and slowly but surely slipping back into my old routines, I followed that impulse and started
Thursdays at Da Nang Thursdays at Da Nang Thursdays at Da Nang

the English Class kids
to do a hell lot of research about NGOs and development projects in Vietnam. What began with some kind of Asian tranquility, soon turned into serious restlessness. Digging into this, I was overwhelmed and bewildered with tons of questions and doubts. Never having worked for an NGO before, which concept/philosophy was I to support? What are my skills and what was I personally able of coping with? What is my motivation/motif (it’s always a mix of different things, I found out, and much more than altruism)? And most of all, what are the parameters for the right decision? I was literally going around in circles. Driven by a vision, borne by the desire to pull it through. After thinking it over again and again, I finally homed in on Lifestart Foundation. I read all I could possibly find about Karen, her team and the past volunteers and I admired their projects and approaches, focusing on self-sufficiency and sustainability! Moreover, I remembered the special connection I felt when visiting Hoi An the first time. This little town embraced me the minute I got there. At the time, I didn’t see any of this coming, but now it suddenly all made sense.

Sheila, Alison and Peter
So this was, where I wanted to go to "give back". After a couple of emails and skypes with Karen the plan was conceived!

Another 5 months were left to get prepared... coordinating things with my job, booking flights, arranging visas, finding subtenants, packing up and getting ready to go. A few obstacles needed to be overcome – my first lesson in expecting the unexpected, as the biggest obstacles were easiest to take and vice versa. There was a second of fear of my own courage, I have to admit, but it soon turned into liberation and determination. After all, I had designed a chapter of my life and I was ready to turn the first page! Leaving home, I started with a 2-week-trip through stunning Lao, a great and effective way to handle the shift between the two worlds. When I finally got to Hoi An I was in the habit of going with the flow and my mind was wide open – quite what I needed to see the beauty in every single adventurous and sometimes crazy day I had ahead of me.

First person I met was the best housemate and co-volunteer I could have possibly imagined: Sheila from the U.K.! To have us starting at the same time was a great move by Karen. We went through similar phases during the attempt to get orientated, adapted and settled, we laughed and grumbled together, we sweated and indulged together, we schemed and de-briefed together – yet, being two independent personalities, not clinging to each other at all. A great match, indeed. Meeting Karen and her team and the current volunteers Alison and Peter was just as enjoyable, like being warmly welcomed to a new family. I was introduced to all the ongoing projects and recipients, slowly and respectfully, and we finally worked out a weekly schedule of duties and activities – and expecting the unexpected was always part of the game.

Soon, I was busy with a lot of work, quite different from what I used to do back home, emotionally challenging at times, but highly rewarding! While it was essential to develop a sound understanding of the sensitivities (those of individuals and those of the government alike) and in many cases being wholehearted and giving some caring affection was all there was needed primarily, it was just as essential to be able to
all girls like clothingall girls like clothingall girls like clothing

distribution of donated clothes at Da Nang Red Cross Center
draw on one's expertise and transfer one's trusted skills to a new and sometimes unusual context. Concretely, for me that meant being involved with Lifestart Foundations two new outreach projects (Hoi An Homeless and Disabled Shelter and Da Nang Red Cross Center) and doing customer service at the Workshop – as well as applying for funds and grants, being in a representative role every now and then and doing all kinds of online marketing and social media activities for the NGO. A colourful mix, that I felt comfortable with. In the beginning I was eager to be "in the field" as much as possible, but work at base was just as much needed, and looking at it now, I think it even helped me to stay focused.

Yes, sometimes our work could be tiring and exhausting, indeed, but after all the many little moments of pure happiness made my day again and again, e.g. when we suddenly realized that a young boy with Cerebral Palsy, who can’t communicate properly, was able to read, or when chaotic magic appeared during a distribution of clothing-, rice- and chicken-donations, or when the English-class-kids came running to pick us up from the bus
Luong in a mentoring roleLuong in a mentoring roleLuong in a mentoring role

A group of young people with complex disabilities visit the LSF Workshop and are mentored by our makers
stop and guided us proudly to the patched-up classroom, or when we handed out coloring books at the Homeless Shelter and suddenly a meditative silence occured, or when a tiny move or touch made tears of joy come streaming, or when the ladies at the Workshop got to meet with disabled youth, sharing their stories and spreading cross-generational hope amongst each other... and there is so much more. Everything was demanding and precious, simultaneously. To receive an invite to the German Embassy and to pave the way for a funding-application, was a whole different experience, but just as thrilling.

And obviously a lot of other memorable and funny things happened outside the job, as well. My everyday life was full of curious contradictions, you gotta see it to believe it. Trying to immerse myself in Vietnamese customs was more often than not like trying to solve a riddle. I had to find my feet, there was so much to learn every day. Apart from food (and yes, I l.o.v.e.d. every bit of it!), this is what can make living in another culture so exciting, and at times so frustrating. While some matters might simply get "lost in translation" (a
true colorstrue colorstrue colors

everyone loves coloring at Hoi An Shelter
yes means maybe, a maybe means usually no, and a no means tomorrow is a whole new day), in Vietnam others most definitely get "lost in superstition" – a whole different chapter. An outstanding example is TET (the Vietnamese New Year, following the lunar calender), which I was lucky enough to experience and which is full of rituals and expectations. Everyone is going crazy with preparations, and you gotta be careful like hell not to cause "bad luck" for anyone, but no one really fills you in about the Dos and Don'ts. Each time I thought I had figured it out, a new detail popped up – complicated! And yet, the living was easy – and I miss it.

The easiness in spite of all the tragedy and difficult circumstances might have very likely been the strongest contradiction I had to face. In terms of myself – bearing in mind how "easy" (and enjoyable) it is to make this 3-month-experience, living a simple life abroad, with all the back-ups and privileges to return to at home. Nothing to feel guilty about, but I was glad, we were discussing sustainability at all times, making sure things will go on. And

in his own world
also in terms of the individuals I was working with – Vietnam’s "easy" and positive energy struck me the first time I came to this country, it made me come back, and it struck me even stronger this time. Before I started working for Lifestart Foundation I familiarized myself with all the individual stories of the Workshop-makers. I knew they would be the people I would work with the closest. However, once I met each and everyone, their stories almost totally disappeared. They weren't central to our relationship/friendship at all. The pursuit of happiness always faces the future and hard work is what it takes – they all seem to have internalized that. It's only now, when I call to mind what I actually know about the personal history of everyone, that I feel touched and affected. Whilst around that lovely group of people, that all have come a long way, a joyful atmosphere prevailed, despite the misery and ache. Hoi An Homeless Shelter is probably as extreme as it can get and the issues obviously are a bit different (Alison's and Karen's last blog-entries give an excellent introduction to our work at this miserable place). And yet, I tend

seriously crafty
to say, even there the same is true. As challenging, exhausting and borderline as every session was, it was yet so inspiring. What the residents urgently needed was "easy" to give: be there with them, at the present, 100%, hands-on, with love and respect. And what they were giving back was its multiple, straight forward, unfiltered – beatific smiles, spectacular enthusiasm and striking emotionality. When all I was longing for at the end of such an afternoon was a shower and some peace and quiet, these are the very moments that left a lasting impression on me.

When my farewell came closer I was dazed by mixed emotions, increasingly – some exhaustion, anticipation to see family&friends again and wrench took turns. I would have loved to stay longer, but it was time to go, time to catch up with my "old life". Three months is the minimum for such an undertaking, in my view (both from a personal prospect and in regards of the duties). Yes, I was looking forward to a few odd things (whole-grain bread, clean feet, perfume instead of repellant, fresh tap water and fixed prices), but I had settled in pretty well and so leaving my new friends and my new life was yet another challenge to take. A tough cookie, quite frankly! However, let's not call it a goodbye, I hate the way it sounds, let's say – for now.

Coming home was good.

Was I climate-shocked? Adapting from tropical 30°C to frosty -10°C, who wouldn't! Was I culture-shocked? All I'm saying is, it always hits you when you expect it the least.

So, that’s "how it was". Only just managed to put down a fraction of what really happened in writing..."

Interested in Volunteering?

Arm yourself with as much information as possible about your host organisation, read their website thoroughly and I would suggest that you read this blog on International Volunteering .

For those of you who are little techno challenged like myself if you click on any of the words in blue it will automatically link you into that subject.

Don't forget to have a look at our new website and find out how you too can support us from anywhere in the world.

Lots of Love from Karen

youtube video 1

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You can read the blogs of previous Lifestart Foundation volunteers on the links below.

Meet Sahar from the UK
Al and Robbie
Meet Trisha from New Zealand
Art Classes with Lone from Denmark 9th August 2011
Ruth: Teaching English in Vietnam 31st May 2011
E: Why Vietnam Rocks 9th Dec 2010
Sue: Capacity Building and Cleaning Up Mud 29th July 2010
Mark and Mary: Teaching English as a Second Language November 2009
Tropical Storm Ketsana - A picture is worth a thousand words
Cycle Vietnam for a Worthy Cause – Jan 17th 2009
Doctor John – Jan 14th 2009
Memory Portraits – Jan 14th 2009
Birdman Returns – Jul 15th 2008
Meet Sherry – A dream volunteer – Apr 30th 2008

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24



a professional heartbreaker
family lunchfamily lunch
family lunch

after the end-of-year prayers at TET
lucky waterlucky water
lucky water

Luong on TET
a basket of chickensa basket of chickens
a basket of chickens

for one of the scholarship children and her family
Vinh's weddingVinh's wedding
Vinh's wedding

with lovely Dung (Workshop staff)
The newly wedsThe newly weds
The newly weds

mot, hai, ba with Sheila

19th April 2013

An amazing experience
Karen, thank you for sharing Carmen's wonderful experience. You are an amazing lady leading an amazing organization. We will send you a small donation this morning so you can continue on. Thank you for all you do.

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